Becoming a National Church
Adolf Ens. Winnipeg, MB: Canadian Mennonite University Press, 2004. 258 pages.
“To everything there is a season” (Eccles. 3:1), the theme verse of the story of the birth, development, and eventual dissolution of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, could have been used in this history of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. Birthed in 1903 as the Conference of Mennonites in Central Canada, and growing and being reshaped by assimilated Russian immigrants and by mergers, the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (CMC) has a unique history. In 1999, this body was succeeded by Mennonite Church Canada, a sister church to Mennonite Church USA. The General Conference Mennonite Church, often confused with what was formerly the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, like the latter, was also dissolved. Like the MBs, MCs now have two separate national church bodies.
Adolf Ens ably summarizes the history of the CMC. His stated goal is to “provide both a broader understanding and a deeper appreciation for our Church and its attempt to live in faithful discipleship of Jesus Christ, its acknowledged Head” (xiii). Ens’ rich background in education and overseas ministry with the General Conference uniquely qualifies him to write the CMC history. He taught history and theology from 1974 to 2001 at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg.
Ens surveys the century of CMC in eight chapters. The first three chapters deal with the beginnings of Mennonite settlement in Canada, the coming together of the Bergthaler Mennonites of Manitoba and the Rosenorter group in Saskatchewan to form the Conference of Mennonites of Central Canada, and the struggles and growth of the Conference up to 1939.
The newly formed Conference endeavored to operate with the General Conference motto, “In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things charity.” It also recognized the primary autonomy of the member congregations, polity which has characterized CMC throughout the century. It was explicitly stated that the Conference not interfere in the internal affairs of a congregation unless requested to do so (21).
The remaining chapters deal with further expansion of the Conference in congregations and ministries, culminating with a chapter on cooperation and integration 1988-1999. It is noted that the concentration of power in Conference committees and boards was predominantly in the hands of ordained men. This continued well into the sixties. The fading out of the central role of bishops did not occur until the seventies. In 1972 women were approved for ordination. In 1995, the joint General Conference and Mennonite Church Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was ratified.
The theological diversity in CMC was considerable, and Ens could have developed this more beyond describing the Schoenwieser, Manitoba, congregation “heresy” trial over the alleged belief in universalism (75-78). Ens does write of congregations of the 1987-1999 period leaving CMC over “liberal” doctrine and ethical issues such as the Conference stand on divorce and remarriage and especially homosexuality (198). A resolution stating that homosexual activity was sinful was adapted in 1986. In 1998 at CMC sessions in Stratford another resolution on homosexuality affirmed the 1986 resolution and then added that it invited congregations to become “communities of grace, joy, and peace so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world, not excluding those whose sexual orientation is homosexual” (199-200). There was considerable divergence of opinion regarding this resolution, although it was finally accepted by a 92 percent majority. In consequence some congregations withdrew from Conference membership perceiving CMC to be “soft” on the issue of homosexuality.
Becoming a National Church extends the history of CMC given in Pannabecker’s Open Doors (1975) and covers the entire expanse in greater detail and depth. The book contains many tables listing all of the congregations that were added to the Conference as well as those that left or closed. Maps, appendixes, and endnotes supplement the chapters. All in all, Ens has done an admirable job of encapsulating almost one hundred years of CMC history in 257 pages. Those who teach Mennonite history need this book, as do all church and school libraries and all those who are interested in the background of what is now Mennonite Church Canada.